Braves manager Brian Snitker should play his reserve outfielders more

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Athletics are the worst team in baseball this season. They could end up being the worst in MLB history. That makes the two losses by the Braves in the Bay Area this week seem bigger than they were. Even after the offensive outage in Oakland, the Braves were 33-23 and four games up on the Mets in the NL East.

That’s not to say the Braves don’t have issues. Most of them will work themselves out soon enough. The starting rotation will be fixed once Max Fried and Kyle Wright are healthy. Some recent ugly outings by relievers have fueled the perception that the bullpen is in shambles. It’s not.

But there are two areas where the Braves are struggling, and they aren’t even trying their potential solutions. Center fielder Michael Harris and left fielder Eddie Rosario haven’t produced at the plate all season. They’ve been particularly dreadful over the past two weeks. And yet manager Brian Snitker keeps running Harris and Rosario out when he has other viable options.

Harris has started 21 of 22 games since getting two days off May 5-6. He’s hitting .147 with a .234 on-base percentage during that time. The average is tied for third-worst in MLB among qualified players over that span, and the OBP is eighth-worst. Harris is an excellent fielder at a premium position, but that doesn’t come close to making up for his bottom-of-the-barrel offense.

Rosario has been only a little bit better. The “Edd-ie!” chants at Truist Park have become a sad reminder that Rosario hasn’t done much since he was a postseason hero in 2021. Rosario is hitting .239 with a .269 OBP in 171 plate appearances this season. The batting average would rank bottom 50 in MLB and the OBP bottom five if Rosario had three more PAs to qualify.

Snitker has subs who plausibly can do better than Harris and Rosario if given the chance. One of them already has done it.

Sam Hilliard was the regular center fielder when Harris was out with a back injury. He hit .300 with three home runs, two doubles and a .364 OBP in 18 games. Hilliard has been in the lineup in only three of 30 games since Harris returned.

Kevin Pillar was a very good center fielder as a young player. He’s a below-average defender now, but he’s hit well in a limited role with the Braves. He has an .807 on-base plus slugging percentage in 90 plate appearances. Pillar has started 20 games. He’s usually in the lineup only when the Braves face a lefty and Rosario sits.

I don’t see why Pillar and Hilliard aren’t getting more opportunities. Charlie Culberson is another plausible option to start in the outfield. He hasn’t played at all since the Braves called him up from Triple-A Gwinnett on May 19.

The argument against giving utilitymen more playing time is their production tends to drop off as sample sizes increase. But what does Snitker have to lose when his left fielder and center fielder are scuffling so badly?

The main reason the Braves are 19-19 after a 14-4 start is they rank 14th in batting average and 20th in OBP during that time. Not many players have been worse than Harris and Rosario in those categories. There comes a time when it’s worth it to see if any bench players can do better in expanded roles.

I understand that managers straddle a fine line with struggling players. Snitker wants to give Harris and Rosario every opportunity to produce. Rosario had a solid start to the season, so there was reason to believe he was bouncing back after vision problems hampered him in 2022. Harris needed a chance to get comfortable after the back injury sidelined him from April 7-28.

If Snitker’s patience pays off, the Braves’ lineup would have a power-hitting center fielder with a great glove and an above-average bat in left field. But we’re seeing the risk of letting Harris and Rosario keep getting PAs while providing sub-MLB production. Left field and center field stick out for their lack of production.

Braves catchers rank first in Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs) for their position. First baseman Matt Olson ranks fourth, and second baseman Ozzie Albies is 13th. Braves shortstops rank 18th in WAR, but that includes 18 games of subpar play by Vaughn Grissom; Orlando Arcia has been excellent in 35 games (1.3 WAR). Braves third baseman Austin Riley ranks tied for sixth in WAR despite a month-long slump.

The Braves rank last in MLB for WAR for left fielders. That’s no surprise. There was a risk that position would be a big hole if Rosario didn’t regain his form. Marcell Ozuna is too poor in the field to play out there. Ozuna’s offensive surge has pulled his production up to the MLB average for the season, but he has a 0.0 WAR because he has zero defensive value.

It’s more surprising that the Braves are tied for 23rd in WAR for center fielders. It’s shocking that Hilliard (0.2 WAR in 28 games) has been better than Harris (-0.1 WAR in 34 games). Some regression was expected for Harris in his second season. No one could see such a drastic drop-off after Harris put up historically good numbers for a 21-year old rookie.

That talent is the reason why the Braves are being patient with Harris. I get it, even if I think it’s past the time when he should automatically be penciled in as the center fielder. There’s more of an argument for Harris to stay in the lineup than for Rosario, but Snitker should be sitting both of his struggling outfielders more often.